Contrary to what many of the obituaries about him claimed, Bill Pinkney was not an original member of the Drifters. Rather, he was one of the "Original Drifters," a performing group that he organized in the 1970s around the sound and lineup of that venerable R&B harmony vocal group of the 1950s. He had been a very early member of the Drifters, to be sure, and was part of the first lineup that actually lasted through more than one recording cycle; and his was the version of the group that survived -- by a considerable amount of time -- the departure of founder/leader Clyde McPhatter; further, with two years' tenure, Pinkney was there longer than most of his contemporaries (as well as many of those who followed). But at least two memberships preceded the lineup in which he made his debut with the group, and the Drifters had already had already cut the groundbreaking rock & roll hit "Money Honey" at the point when he joined.
Born in Dalzell, SC, in 1925, Bill Pinkney sang gospel music growing up, as a member of his church choir. His original career aspirations didn't involve music, however, but sports -- he played in the Negro League ball clubs that flourished in the years of segregated baseball. He also served in Europe during World War II as a member of the United States Army. During the late '40s and early '50s, he began singing again, this time professionally, and crossed paths with various future members of the Drifters, most of whom were recruited by group founder Clyde McPhatter from the ranks of gospel choirs. Pinkney joined the Drifters in 1954, after two earlier versions of the group had made the initial Drifters recordings, and was part of a lineup that also included Gerhart Thrasher and Andrew Thrasher, plus guitarist Jimmy Oliver, with McPhatter on lead. This was the first Drifters lineup to last any serious length of time, so much so that when McPhatter elected to leave the group for a solo career later in 1954, they continued -- where previously they'd been billed as Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, they were now simply and permanently the Drifters. A long series of personnel changes in the lead singer spot ensued, however, with original member David Baughn returning, this time as the lead voice, and Bobby Hendricks joining on lead vocals as well, when Baughn started to show signs of unreliability. The Drifters' management and record label found it difficult to replace McPhatter, however, and at one point even Pinkney, with his bass voice -- best heard on the single "White Christmas" -- was given a lead vocal spot on a record. He was still with the group when Johnny Moore brought some stability to their configuration and sound.
By late 1956, the group had managed to restore something of their original high reputation, mostly through a lot of hard work that Pinkney and the other members felt, increasingly, was going unrewarded. All of the members worked on straight salary, with manager George Treadwell taking all of the profits, which wouldn't have been so bad except that the salaries were very low for the amount of work that they were doing, six nights a week most weeks, often with several shows a night, and frequently moving hundreds of miles between engagements from day to day. Pinkney approached Treadwell about the possibility of getting more money and was fired for his trouble. In response, Pinkney and fellow member Andrew Thrasher, who quit over his firing, formed the core of a new R&B harmony group called the Flyers, who cut one single for Atlantic Records without attracting much attention. Two years after their departure, the Drifters' entire lineup quit en masse, but the group endured with a new membership (initially under the leadership of Ben E. King and later Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore) and sound, and enjoyed a fresh string of R&B hits into the mid-'60s. And although none of the members emerged as stars -- even at Johnny Moore's level, never mind Clyde McPhatter -- and at one point in the resulting records it seems as though there were no black singers' voices present. A version of the group continued working in England into the early/mid-'70s, generating a more disco-oriented pop-soul sound.
It was around this time that Pinkney formed a group that he christened "the Original Drifters," which included several other surviving members of the 1950s lineup of the group. The "Drifters" name was in dispute for many years, claimed and used by various ex-members and promoters, though a court eventually decided that the name was actually owned by Treadwell's widow. Pinkney's Original Drifters, who were based in the southeastern United States, where their sound was equated with "beach music," in much the same manner as Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs and Bill Deal & the Rhondels. He ultimately became a music celebrity on the oldies circuit and among serious R&B music scholars. Though his two-year formal tenure with the group didn't sound like much, it was longer than most of his colleagues could claim, and through the Original Drifters he did keep their sound alive for decades to come, though he wasn't the only one. Johnny Moore, who was with them longer across two major stints and was a lead singer as well, also fronted a version of the group that had its own claim to authenticity. Pinkney was very visible in the press, as part of the struggle by legitimate former R&B group members against the intrusion of modern, updated lineups trading on the group names. He was also an outspoken supporter of legislation intended to grant ex-members the standing to use their former group names (or variations thereof) in performance.
Pinkney received various honors later in life, including an honorary doctorate in music. He also received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He kept his Original Drifters working well into the 21st century and, in fact, was due to perform with them on the night of his death on July 4, 2007, in Daytona, FL. If not an actual "original," he was far and away the oldest and longest performing veteran of the beloved vocal group he'd joined more than 50 years earlier.